TAMPA — The bay area faces three options that will decide the fate of its cruise ship industry: raise the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to allow megacruise ships of the future to pass beneath; build a new cruise terminal west of the bridge for megaships without having them go under the bridge; or do nothing and watch Tampa lose its cruise ship business to ports in New Orleans, Galveston, Houston and Mobile.
"Of course, if we do nothing," said Richard Biter, "eventually in 10 to 15 years, it's going to have a significantly negative impact on the cruise ship industry."
Biter is the Florida Department of Transportation's assistant secretary for intermodal systems development. His agency has undertaken two studies to look at the future of Florida's cruise ship market — and Tampa Bay's slice of that market.
The statewide study was completed in November. The second Tampa Bay-centric study, which was requested by the Port of Tampa, is expected to be finished by month's end.
But all the state can do is study these issues, Biter said. It is up to local authorities to decide the fate of cruise ships here, including the Tampa Port Authority, the Manatee County Port Authority and officials in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties.
"The bottom line is it's got to be a local effort," Biter said. "The state is ready and willing to step up and see what we can do. But it's not going to be until everyone here comes together and says we do or don't want (cruise ships)."
According to the state, more than half the world's cruise ship fleet will switch to the megaships by 2016-17. The Skyway can handle cruise ships that measure 179 to 181 feet from top to the waterline. But megaships can sit as high as 225 feet above the waterline.
"The point is the ships that are currently serving Tampa are eventually going to be rotated out of the fleet," Biter said. "If we look at the market trends throughout the major part of the cruise industry, where they get the greatest return is on the megaships."
But one of those options isn't an option: The Skyway cannot be raised. Though some states are raising bridges to accommodate the massive cargo ships of the future, like the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey, that can't happen here. The Skyway would have to be rebuilt, an incredibly expensive and highly unlikely option that is already off the table.
The second option would be to build a cruise ship terminal for the megaships west of the Skyway off the coast of Pinellas or Manatee counties. But that project would require major funding and have to clear numerous environmental hurdles.
"Can you do it? Yes," Biter said. "But is it the right thing to do?"
Or the bay area could do nothing, Biter said, and try to exist as a niche cruise ship market handling older, smaller ships sailing around the Caribbean.
But the megaship problem could still hurt Tampa Bay in the future, Biter said, if the federal government ever allows cruise ships to sail from the United States to Cuba. The Port of Tampa would also be shut out of that potential market as well because of the bridge height issue.
Despite the dim future, the local cruise ship market is actually growing. The Tampa Port Authority is adding cruise ships to its portfolio, extended its contract with Carnival Corp. and hopes to surpass 1 million passengers in fiscal year 2015.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jthalji on Twitter.